Where is the #MeToo moment in India's politics?

by Annie Banerji | @anniebanerji | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 12 December 2018 11:13 GMT

People take part in a protest rally against sexual harassment in Kolkata, India December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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Harassment and exploitation of women - including demands for sexual favours and character assassination - is rife in politics.

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI, Dec 12(Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From media to sports and business, a wave of #MeToo revelations has rocked India this year, but the movement has left the country's male-dominated politics largely untouched - and that needs to change, activists say.

Men rule the roost in the world's largest democracy, where analysts and activists say harassment and exploitation of women are rife, including demands for sexual favours and character assassination.

While the campaign has hit a few politicians - with a state legislator from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party sacked in November - most remain unscathed.

Fear has kept female politicians from launching a public discussion about the issue, said Kavita Krishnan, an activist with the All India Progressive Women's Association.

"It is still immensely costly for women to speak out," she said. "It is dangerous because if they do, a whole pack will descend on them, gang up on them and bully them into silence."

The biggest casualty of India's #MeToo movement has been the resignation of a federal junior minister, M.J.Akbar, after several women accused him of sexual harassment before he became a politician.

However, Krishnan said that case did not relate to politics per se, as the allegations were related to his time as a newspaper editor.

The #MeToo campaign, which began in the U.S. entertainment industry, gained traction in India in September when Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta accused a veteran actor of sexually harassing her on a film set a decade earlier.

That triggered a cascade of sexual misconduct complaints against high-profile journalists, authors, film personalities, comedians, lawyers and corporate executives.

Politicians have not figured much on the list, but activists say sexual harassment is an unspoken reality in politics in India, where it is met with apathy or hushed by intimidation.

Earlier this year, the member of parliament Shatrughan Sinha told local media that "sexual favours are demanded" in politics.

"It's an old and time-tested way of getting ahead in life. 'You please me, I'll please you'," he was quoted in the Indian Express newspaper as saying.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research (CSR), said this was the "harsh reality", especially for women who do not come from politically-powerful and influential families.

"When you look at the common middle-class women trying to enter that space, then the rule of the game is that she will be asked for sexual favours, she will be pushed, she will be touched," Kumari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The political culture is infested with exploitation and sexual harassment of women."

WOMEN IN POLITICS

A 2014 study by U.N. Women and CSR found that 14 percent of 750 respondents - mostly female politicians - had faced sexual violence in politics and 45 percent had been physically abused, compared to 30 percent in Pakistan and 21 in Nepal.

The report 'Violence Against Women in Politics' also showed that the most common and widespread form of abuse was the expectation of sexual favours.

Campaigners say changing the culture of abuse will require more women at top levels of government who can champion policies and laws to fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.

In order to bypass sexist attitudes that block female politicians from top positions, they want the government to pass the two-decade-old Women's Reservation Bill, which reserves one-third of the seats in national and state assemblies for women.

Women hold only 12 percent of seats in both the lower and upper houses of parliament in India, compared to the global average of 23 percent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an independent organisation promoting democracy.

Kumari urged Modi, whose government has a majority in parliament, to pass the bill in the winter parliament session that began on Tuesday.

Major parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and main opposition Congress, have long championed the passage of the bill, yet it has faced vehement resistance from male lawmakers.

"Women need to be better represented at every level of governance so that they can prioritize the issue of sexual assault," said Nisha Mukherjee Bellinger, a political science professor at Boise State University in Idaho.

However, having more female politicians might not decrease sexual harassment and could unfairly place the onus of women's safety solely on women, activists say.

"Just because they are women does not mean that they are going to be anti-patriarchal," Krishnan said, adding that #MeToo would not happen "anytime soon in Indian politics".

Nishtha Satyam, deputy representative of U.N. Women in India, said she was confident that the movement would ultimately affect politics - but that would be unlikely to happen soon.

India holds general elections next year.

"Needless to say it is a very politically sensitive time and it will take extra courage, strength and an enabling environment for women to speak out at this particular time," she said. (Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Jared Ferrie; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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